Most people remember July 20, 1969, as the day that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
Artist Janet Cook-Rutnik remembers it as the day she and her husband Andy set foot on St. John. Unlike Neil Armstrong, they settled down permanently in their destination of choice.
The Rutniks have now lived on St. John for 50 years, and to celebrate, they’re opening their home in Fish Bay from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, for an Open Studio exhibition of Cook-Rutnik’s work.
The Open Studio event will double as a fundraiser for a cause dear to their hearts – the Ruby Rutnik Scholarship Fund – created in honor of their daughter Ruby, who died in a car accident in 1996 when she was a senior at American University. In the past 23 years, the fund has awarded more than $170,000 in scholarships to help young women from St. John pay for college.
The Rutniks are requesting a $50 donation, payable by check or credit card, to attend Saturday’s event. The cost of admission will be credited toward the sale of Cook-Rutnik’s artwork, which ranges in price from $75 to $7,500.
Net proceeds from the sale of the artwork will also benefit the scholarship fund.
A taxi will be available to transport those arriving on the 3 p.m. ferry to the Rutniks’ home – Guavaberry Farms – in Fish Bay.
It’s challenging to give an overview of Cook-Rutnik’s artwork, partly because it has varied so much in the past five decades, and partly because much of her later work is conceptual and often collaborative. Fortunately, her website, shows the range of her endeavors and provides an in-depth discussion of her more abstract work.
When she first arrived on St. John with a newly minted degree in fine arts from SUNY Albany, she was captured by the beauty of the island and often painted landscapes. These were not your typical landscapes, however, with blue seas, waving palm trees and bright, tropical flowers. Instead, her print of a clothesline in the breeze, or another of the Moravian Church, vibrated with unexpected tones and stark lines.
“Being a contemporary artist, I did abstract work in all media – from watercolor to oil to acrylic,” she said.
Much of her work in those days wound up on cards and t-shirts.
“I approached it as a fine artist instead of a graphic designer,” Cook-Rutnik said.
She opened her first gallery, the Art Project, in 1976 in what is now Miss Meada’s Plaza in Cruz Bay. She featured the work of Virgin Islands artists including Lisa Etre, Albert Daniel, Karen Samuel and Johnna White.
There wasn’t much of an art market on St. John back then, and the gallery closed in 1982. But Cook-Rutnik wanted a space to show her own work and the arts and crafts of others, so before long, she leased a small piece of land across the street from her old gallery. There she built a little shack out of wood, painted it hot pink, and opened it as “At the Plum Tree.”
When that gallery closed in 1993 (it is now a clothing shop), Cook-Rutnik moved her studio to her home. In 2004, she opened a studio gallery, Solo Arte, at the Old Lumberyard Complex, where she showed her own work and offered classes in various forms of printmaking for several years.
Cook-Rutnik soon began to collaborate with other artists in what became known as the Transfer Project. Conceptualized in 2001 “and actualized through planning grants in 2003 from the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts [in Frederiksted], exhibitions were presented to commemorate the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. government on March 31, 1917,” her website says.
As part of the project (which continued until 2014), several artists collaborated on a video “in which a large rock is moved around the three Virgin Islands utilizing all local means of transportation including a donkey. The Rock/Transfer is a light-hearted attempt to investigate an aspect of the “heavy” history that has shaped this part of the Caribbean.
In another installation, more sobering images of the identity papers issued to residents of the Virgin Islands in 1918 were blown up on 4-foot-by-5-foot transparencies and projected onto the walls of the museum.
“As a contemporary artist, I work in all media to realize what I’m trying to express about colonial history and social issues,” she said.
Cook-Rutnik’s most recent show, at Bajo el Sol Gallery this past summer, continued to explore these issues. For the collaborative video “On These Shores,” she collected miniature figurines from flea markets and curio shops over the course of a decade. Then she photographed these figures at Hawksnest Beach on St. John in ways meant to evoke “the many migrations of myriad peoples who have made their way to these shores over the last 400 years,” according to the show’s catalogue. The result is both funny and disturbing.
Not all of her work is conceptual or brainy. Much of it is lovely, lyrical and speaks to the heart.
Over the years, her work has been exhibited in France, Germany, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Her artwork gets around; one of her designs was transposed on an airplane which flies charters throughout the Caribbean.
Tickets for Saturday’s Open Studio can be purchased in advance through the Gifft Hill School’s website. Cook-Rutnik was one of the founders of the school more than 40 years ago, and the school now administers the Ruby Rutnik Scholarship Fund as part of its endowment.
For those who want to extend their experience on Saturday, there will be a prix fixe artists’ supper held at La Tapa starting at 6:30 p.m. Details can be found and reservations can be made by calling the restaurant at 340-693-7755.